Home The Washington Diplomat February 2012

North Koreans Hungry — For Change, But Mostly for Food

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The sudden December death of longtime North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il delivered a jolt to policymakers who've since scrambled to decipher what's happening inside the hermitically sealed, nuclear-armed nation, inspiring hopes of a diplomatic thaw and worries that the new regime will try to achieve legitimacy through renewed acts of aggression.

Now the guessing game is on to crack the enigma of the departed dear leader's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, the untested heir thrust into the role of replacing his cult-like father. Even his real age is anyone's guess; most media reports estimate he's in his late 20s. Photos were also scarce up until the elder Kim's elaborate funeral, which experts around the world dissected to gauge who might be in a position of power in the opaque leadership.

Those photos did reveal the younger Kim's pudgy appearance, similar to his father's rotund frame. In that regard, neither father nor son looks much like the bulk of the country's 24 million people, many of whom are gaunt and malnourished.

Indeed, hunger, not political transition, is the more immediate concern for most North Koreans. And as the United States and its allies grapple with a growing nuclear arsenal in an erratic country where only China has any modicum of influence, food aid may be one of the few areas in which the West has any leverage.

While it may seem callous to describe providing food to starving people as leverage, the question over whether assistance actually feeds the fat cats who keep the rest of the country hungry is a legitimate one. And it's more relevant than ever.

While the Kim dynasty has pledged to maintain the country's "songun" military-first policy, the government had also planned to celebrate the centenary of the birth of its founding president, Kim Il-sung, by ramping up food distribution in 2012. It would be a mammoth undertaking, and a critical test, for the North's new "supreme leader," one that he can't possibly do without outside help.

But will that translate into an opportunity for the West to pry open one of the world's most closed societies while alleviating untold suffering, or is it a gambit to prey on Western sympathies that, inadvertently, props up the very regime responsible for the suffering?

Need Still Acute

North Korea's inability to feed its people is widely known and longstanding. The topography of the region is unsuited to agriculture and it has a short growing season; consequently, the nation has always been dependent on imports and donations to meet its nutritional needs. The end of the Cold War also signaled the end of Soviet aid, which had turned into a lifeline for the North. With the country diplomatically adrift and economically backward, one of the most severe famines in recent history ensued in the mid-1990s, killing up to 1 million people, or possibly even 2 million according to some estimates.

But while the horror of what has been called the Great Hunger has passed, the need for food assistance has not. Indeed, before Kim's death at the age of 69, much of the nation's dialogue with the world community throughout 2011 focused precisely on this issue, and for good reason.

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Credit: UN Photo / James Bu
In this U.N. photo taken in 1997, following the famine in North Korea that killed an estimated 1 million people, a farm wife shows a one-day ration of food in the reclusive communist nation.

"[The North Koreans] made widespread calls for food aid, and as the year progressed, there were multiple delegations from the U.N. and NGOs [examining the issue]," Karin Lee, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, told The Diplomat. "All of them found the same thing, which was chronic malnutrition, with pockets of acute malnutrition. These findings are not necessarily a surprise. It's a chronic problem."

In fact, the World Food Program says that one in every three children in North Korea remains chronically malnourished or "stunted," meaning they are too short for their age, and nearly one in five is underweight. Earlier last year, the group estimated that some 6 million people would need assistance in 2011, due mostly to a bitter winter and diminished aid. Although the annual harvest improved heading into the New Year, a joint report by the World Food Program and Food and Agricultural Organization noted that nearly 3 million people in the country will continue to require food assistance in 2012.

A combination of international sanctions, natural disasters such as flooding, and rampant government mismanagement and greed has made food shortage a fact of North Korean life. While outsiders rarely glimpse inside the reclusive country, reports have frequently surfaced of families scouring the woods for plants to boil or resorting to eating manure to stay alive. More commonly, people spend their entire incomes to feed themselves, especially after a botched currency reform in 2009 that wiped out life savings and caused food prices to soar.

The American Enterprise Institute's Nicholas Eberstadt wrote in a report last year that North Korea is the only industrialized nation in world history that, after having overcome the era of famine and achieved the ability to produce enough food to feed its citizens, has regressed to a state of perpetual food insecurity.

"North Korea has relied on temporary international emergency humanitarian food aid donations — but on a permanent basis," Eberstadt said. He added in an op-ed that Kim Jong-il earned the dubious "lifetime achievement award for overseeing the first industrialized economy ever to lose the capacity to feed itself."

"Since the very late 1990s, when North Korea's famine apparently subsided, the food situation in the country has remained desperately precarious: Resumption of famine has been forestalled only by humanitarian food aid, Western economic assistance and Chinese largesse."

Recent Headway

But that largesse has been running dry. The United States, South Korea, China and Japan had accounted for more than 80 percent of food aid to the North from 1985 to 2009, much of which has since stopped, according a report last summer by the Congressional Research Service, which noted that Chinese contributions have significantly decreased as well.

The United States had pledged to ship 500,000 tons of grain in 2008, but the deliveries stopped a year later, after 170,000 tons had been dispersed, amid disagreements over the transparency of the distribution as well as the North's nuclear weapons program.

More recently though, Washington, along with its regional allies, had been mulling whether to resume food assistance to the North and, according to media reports, the two sides were close to formalizing a food donation deal just as Kim died. Kim Jong-un has since sent mixed signals on further negotiations. "We will wait and see if the United States has a willingness to establish confidence," a January government communiqué stated, in what was widely interpreted as an olive branch.

At the same time, however, the North complained that the United States sought to "drastically" change the remaining 330,000 tons of food aid it had promised in 2008. It also criticized Washington for offering aid and the temporary lifting of economic sanctions on the condition that Pyongyang halt its uranium enrichment program, accusing the U.S. government of "politicizing" humanitarian assistance.

On that note, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, speaking to reporters last October, argued that food aid should not be tied to politics. "You do not judge people on the basis of the political environment in which they are living," she said after a fact-finding trip to North Korea. "We need to remember the most vulnerable people in North Korea are victims of a situation over which they have no control. They are suffering from no fault of their own."

Starving the Regime

But in North Korea, as in other totalitarian states, it's difficult to separate the suffering from the politics that breeds it. Officially, the U.S. government says aid is not directly linked to political issues, but it's no secret that the nuclear standoff and Pyongyang's belligerent posturing have led to a fierce debate over whether to restart food aid, and thereby reward a brutal pariah that has consistently pushed the region to the brink of conflict.

a2.korea.cow.storyNorth Korea, which has one of the world's largest standing armies, abandoned the six-party talks over its nuclear weapons program in 2009 shortly before it carried out its second nuclear test in the last five years. Moreover, the North's provocations over the years have rattled the Korean peninsula, which technically remains in a state of war. Most recently, Pyongyang shelled a South Korean island and was accused of sinking a South Korean warship in 2010, killing 46 sailors — an act that has been attributed to Kim Jong-un as a way to shore up his military standing.

And with the military-obsessed regime seemingly determined to maintain its nuclear program as a hedge against a possible invasion — or to simply to extract concessions from the West while feigning interest in returning to talks — food assistance is one of the few enticements the West has that might get the North to seriously re-engage in negotiations.

From a more practical standpoint, much of the reluctance over food aid stems from the very real possibility that it will just get siphoned off by the elite and never reach the people who need it. That's why the United States has offered nutritional supplements for children, rather than grain, which can be diverted to the country's one-million-strong military or cronies of the regime.

That's also why some experts caution that, while well intentioned, food aid can ultimately do more harm than good because it strengthens the root cause of most North Koreans' misery: the prevailing political system. And this system — not outside donors — is to blame for keeping its citizens in desperate straits for decades. As one of the last hard-line vestiges of communism left in the world, North Korea's rigid, state-controlled system is a model of inefficiency and economic mismanagement — epitomized by the stunning failure of food rations and farm policies. Recent speculation that North Korea, under new leadership, might adopt China's model of economic reform has sparked some hope but remains, at best, a distant possibility.

To that end, some experts say food aid will only temporarily alleviate the symptoms of the North's deep dysfunction.

"To address chronic malnutrition, you don't give food aid. You give development assistance," Lee of the National Committee on North Korea said, pointing out that the United States and European Union are prohibited from doing so because of sanctions. "Until you break this cycle of only being able to provide emergency assistance, you really can't solve the problem."

But given the North's longstanding recalcitrance, international sanctions, which have crippled the economy and perpetuated food shortages, will likely remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, because North Korea's economic isolation is so extreme and unique, the repercussions of food assistance are unpredictable. On the one hand, food scarcity has fueled revolts and democracy movements throughout the Arab world. On the other hand, the Kim dynasty has so far successfully prevented upheaval perhaps in part by keeping their people constantly on the brink of starvation. While the United States debates whether to give food aid, the North may in fact have no real interest in feeding its people, preferring to keep them in perpetual misery while beefing up the military to ensure the regime's survival.

Feeding the People

But for advocates of humanitarian assistance, analyzing the different geopolitical scenarios is beyond the point — people are hungry, and aid is aid.

Analysts like Leon Sigal of the Social Science Research Council also say that making an issue of food aid is counterproductive to U.S. strategic aims.

"The people who think if we hold back food we will starve the regime out, that's just crazy. You are basically feeding into the propaganda of the regime," Sigal said, arguing that withholding aid feeds into the government's narrative that the West has a vendetta against the nation's citizens.

On the contrary, he says aid not only mitigates the suffering of average North Koreans, it also offers constructive links with both the people and the country's leadership. "If you want to get somewhere with regard to denuclearization, you want to do the opposite of denying food. You want to provide food."

The pro-food aid camp also says the concern over monitoring is overblown, as is the charge of military hoarding. "It's not clear to me that you want the military to be in short supply," Sigal pointed out. "Do you want an army that's alienated because it's not well fed?"

There is also recent evidence that aid agencies are capable of successfully monitoring their distribution. "I saw where it is getting through, it is making a real difference," U.N. humanitarian chief Amos said in October, adding that the North appeared to be allowing international Korean speakers and random inspections to ensure aid reaches the needy.

"In October, after visiting the provinces most affected by this year's flooding, representatives from U.S.-based NGOs Mercy Corps and Samaritan's Purse noted that they were very satisfied with the monitoring and oversight of the food aid," North Korea expert Morton Abramowitz, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, wrote in a Dec. 13 National Interest article. "They not only delivered food aid to the intended needy but also expressed confidence they can continue to do so. Other countries have ponied up funds for food, which reportedly is being properly delivered via safeguards that were agreed upon between Pyongyang, the World Food Program and the European Union."

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Credit: UN Photo / James Bu
Nursery school children in a village northwest of Pyongyang receive rations of food in 1997, a decade when a million or more North Koreans died from starvation.

At a panel discussion on the topic last year at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Andrew Natsios, former USAID administrator, outlined several ideas for imposing conditions on food aid — among them, bypassing the state's public food distribution system, requiring on-the-ground nutritional surveys, and dispensing cooked food directly to school children.

But he stressed that cutting off food assistance altogether because of tensions with the government would be "a preposterous idea," because "we are running this program for the people who are the victims of the North Korean government."

Also speaking at the event, Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that food aid is a moral imperative and should continue regardless if it strengthens the regime.

One North Korean migrant who escaped to China told reporter Peter Foster of the Telegraph that even if the military skims off the aid, it will still help average people. "It is true that hardly any of it will come to us ordinary people. It will be sold [on the black market], and the government officials and the army will make all the money," she said. "The people will get very little — but it will be enough to help people to survive."

The moral impetus to help a volatile adversary may fall on deaf ears in a U.S. election year, though, especially one that's overshadowed by economic problems at home and foreign policy crises like Iran. Nevertheless, Abramowitz chided President Obama for dawdling on a humanitarian matter that he says should be separated from politics.

"Despite incessant pleas in the past nine months by U.N. agencies and American and international humanitarian organizations to meet the urgent food needs of numerous women and children in North Korea, the Obama administration has refused to provide help," he wrote, arguing that the government won't admit the real reasons for not providing such aid, "namely that North Korea is genuinely an abhorrent country, that there is no domestic political benefit in providing aid, and that both Congress and our ally South Korea have been vehemently opposed. The United States is seeking political benefit from the North, but can we continue to insist on our commitment to humanitarianism while letting politics dominate in this case?"

Yet with a food deal reportedly imminent before the dear leader's demise, and his successor signaling some willingness to pursue the issue, Sigal told The Diplomat that he's hopeful the Obama administration will seize the chance to right an off-track policy.

"They could have moved a lot sooner. But even worse, they didn't negotiate," Sigal said, pointing out that the administration has engaged in fewer meetings with the North Koreans than any U.S. presidency. "But they are now on the right track. Maybe it won't work, but I'll tell you what certainly won't work, which is not negotiating."


About the Authors

Patrick Corcoran is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.
Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 11, 2014